Academic journal article CineAction

De Palma's Vertigo: Femininity and Formal Design in Obsession

Academic journal article CineAction

De Palma's Vertigo: Femininity and Formal Design in Obsession

Article excerpt

Though very different kinds of critics have championed the work of the enduringly controversial director Brian De Palma--Robin Wood, Pauline Kael, Kenneth MacKinnon, Armond White, and, most recently, Eyal Peretz and Chris Dumas--much of De Palma's work still awaits sustained, careful reconsideration. (1) Obsession (1976) has never been terribly popular even with enthusiastic De Palma fans, who would appear to share Pauline Kael's view of it a failure, though Robin Wood does speak of the film with admiration in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. As I will endeavor to show, the film, far from being a failure or a negligible work, is one of De Palma's finest. It is also a significant contribution from another important auteur from the New Hollywood period (though his directorial significance would emerge more prominently in subsequent decades), Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay. (2) The tendency in appreciative De Palma criticism ranging from Kael to Peretz and Dumas is to downplay De Palma's ties to Hitchcock's work. I suggest that, in order to appreciate De Palma's achievement in his Hitchcockian homages, a series of films that began with Sisters (1973) concluded with Body Double (1984), and then was taken up again with Raising Cain (1992) and Femme Fatale (2002), we do the opposite.

The most high-art-conscious of his films, Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) resonantly evokes a specific kind of American history through its San Francisco setting, which signifies both contemporary American life of the 1950s and the American historical past, figured in the backstory of Madeleine Elster's (Kim Novak) mad ancestor Carlotta Valdes--partly real, partly made up by the villain, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to seduce Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart), a retired detective, into investigating his wife Madeleine during her equally "mad" sojourns throughout the city. The "Carlotta" narrative includes both visual art representations of Carlotta ("Portrait of Carlotta," which Madeleine Elster stares at, fixatedly, as Scotty, equally fixated, stares at her) and strange, nightmarish images of Carlotta herself (in Scotty's nightmare after he believes that Madeleine has, Carlotta-like, killed herself). It is significant, I think, that Obsession substitutes Pontchartrain, New Orleans for San Francisco. Through its hyper-Southern associations, New Orleans stands in not only for the South but also for the historical American past as framed by both slavery and the romanticized customs of the "Old South" that worked to obscure its horrors.

Vertigo famously teems with references to high culture (the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Tristan und Isolde, Hamlet). Obsession develops a distinctive repertoire of aesthetic associations. A significant portion of the film is set in Italy, called by one character "the birthplace of Western art." Prominent references are made to the early Renaissance Italian poet Dante (his definitive works featuring the character of Beatrice, especially La Vita Nuova and Paradiso, the third book of The Divine Comedy) and Dante's contemporary, the artist Bernardo Daddi, whose altarpiece painting of a Madonna and Child is located within the church in Florence that the protagonist, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson), first met his wife, Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold), during World War II. The Church used in the film (San Miniato, which looms high over the city and above a long flight of steps) emerges as an overpowering visual, architectural, and cultural symbol. One of the most interesting aspects of De Palma's reworkings of the Hitchcock text are their own overlaps with classical (especially Euripides and Seneca) and Shakespearean tragedy as well as myth. One of De Palma's early films, Dionysius in '69 (1970) indicates his interest in the tragic, sustained throughout his work. Given the film's ambivalent thematization of incestuous desire--the ardent love between Courtland and a woman who actually turns out to be his daughter--one immediately thinks of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos; Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex and his development of the female Oedipus complex, and the incest narrative of Myrrha in Ovid's Metamorphoses. …

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